First the good news. The Right is not only out of the Elysee Palace but it is on course to have lost control of parliament too. And in its place is probably the most progressive of social democrat parties in Europe today. The Socialists’ programme includes boosting industrial investment, youth employment and teacher numbers, hiking taxes on the rich, and partially reversing former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s regressive pension reforms. Francois Hollande’s election as President has already shifted the tone in Europe away from austerity and towards growth, although, with a commitment to balance the budget, it is very difficult to see how this left turn can result into any sustained change of direction.
Which takes us to the first bit of bad news. The socialists, and their close allies, the PRG and Greens are heading for an outright parliamentary majority. And this means they won’t have to rely on the Left Front to pass laws. It was competition in the Presidential election with this alliance of communists and other radical left-wingers that radicalised the Socialists’ programme and requiring Left Front support in parliament would have helped push the Socialists to carry through their more progressive promises and go further – in particular curtailing the power banks and corporations, confronting the privileges and distributing the wealth of 1%, and tackling the anti-democratic slide and austerity policies of today’s Europe.
At one point credited with an 18% score in opinion polls, putting him in third place behind Hollande and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the right wing UMP party, the Left Front’s Jean Luc Melenchon ended the Presidential race with a disappointing, although nevertheless impressive 11%. On Sunday, the Front de Gauche achieved just 6.9%, and Melenchon himself was knocked out of a race in the former left-wing heartlands of Pas de Calais in the north of the country by extreme right leader Marine Le Pen. She will now be pitted in next Sunday’s second round run off against a socialist candidate who beat Melenchon to place.
To be sure, the Left Front made progress on 2007, if you compare its vote with the alliance’s component parts. And if the vote had been under proportional system this would have secured the party 40 MPs. Under the first past the post system, though, the distribution of the vote means the party risks being left with just 9-11 MPs. (A reverse compared to the French Communist Party’s 15 MPs in the last parliament, despite garnering 700,000 additional votes bringing the total to 1.8 million).
The reasons for the poor result will be chewed over in the coming days and weeks, but here are some of the possible factors:
- at a local level Melenchon had hoped to turn his battle with far right leader into the focus of a national Front-Front contest over the working class vote, but was instead successfully portrayed as an outsider parachuted into Le Pen’s home town, as well as possibly falling foul of dirty campaign tactics by the extreme right leader;
- the decision to lighten the punches the Left Front had laid on the Socialists in the Presidential election (note that the other radical left parties, Workers’ Struggle and Revolutionary Communist League which together garnered 880,000 votes in 2007 saw their support fall to 255,000 on Sunday);
- Hollande’s campaign commitment to tax top earners, and, after his election, moves to return to retirement at 60 for millions of people and the hint at possible penalties for companies that fire workers or relocate production abroad, policies that borrowed heavily from the Left Front’s manifesto, but which may well have take the wind out of the latter’s sails;
- and finally, the logic of the first past the post system that favours the two biggest opposing parties.
Now to the other big piece of bad news: the results of the far right Front National, which not only scored a symbolic win over the radical left’s charismatic leader Melenchon but scored highly in about 60 other constituencies across the country. At 13%, it garnered less support than leader Marine Le Pen achieved in the Presidential election – an historic high of 18% – but nevertheless this result confirms the rise of the Front National as the country’s third party.
The Front National, which fused its campaign of hate with a strong anti-European message and appeal to the working class vote, hopes to win its first parliamentary seat for nearly 26 years, although is expected to win fewer than three constituencies. Damage limitation could have been achieved by a deal, sought by the Socialists whereby the main two parties pledged co-operate in backing any candidate that would defeat the Front National in next Sunday’s run-offs. This was the case in the 2002 election in which the mainstream right’s Jacques Chirac faced Marine’s father Jean Marie Le Pen in the second round Presidential poll. But the UMP, which has swung sharply to the right under Sarkozy, is rejecting this, and is openly appealing for Front National votes.
Finally, to the last bit of bad news. Turnout at the election reached a new low – 39.5% compared to 42.7% in 2007. This indicates a real disaffection with the democratic system at a time when unemployment is soaring (22.5% for the youth) and incomes severely squeezed. In the 1980s the socialist-led Left government was elected on a radical programme only to abandon it for austerity, and the result was a lurch forward of the Front National. If the Left, with already a much less ambitious plan than in 1981, fails people’s hopes again, the risk is that Le Pen could be in sight of national power.